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Challenging Retrospectives

One of the most powerful tools I’ve found for building strong teams has been running safe, regular, fun, challenging, personal and focussed retrospectives. Retrospectives are about the way the team is interacting and the way the work is being done, rather than the work itself. They are private, internal, and for the benefit of the team. I’ve already talked about making retrospectives safe and explained how regularity and fun are key.

So, you’ve built a foundation of safe, regular, and fun retrospectives. The habit is established, and the groundwork is laid to make progress, now it’s time to use that foundation to build something amazing. Throw off the limiting beliefs about what the team can achieve and challenge yourselves to be the best team you can be.

Retrospectives aren’t just about checking in and patting ourselves on the back when things go well, they are a tool for improvement both individually and as a team. If we don’t use the foundation we’ve built to challenge ourselves to be better, then we miss an opportunity.

Identifying things that haven’t gone well is usually straight forward. Having the tough conversations about why things haven’t gone well can be much harder and is very reliant on the safety that has already been built. The focus needs to be on “what can we do as a team to improve things in the next (insert time period here)”.

Talk about problems

Skirting around difficult questions does no one any favours, if issues are not dealt with then they fester until they emerge in more damaging ways. Using a retrospective board and a technique such as Stop, Start, Continue or Liked, Learned, Lacked with a voting mechanism  should allow the team to identify the big issues.

The facilitator’s job is to invite the conversation about those issues to be thorough and address the underlying problems. Ensure everyone gets chance to speak, there might be some that don’t see the problem in the same way, consensus isn’t necessarily the goal. A better understanding of the problem and how everyone approaches it might be a great result even if you don’t have an immediate answer.

Focus on the Team - Avoid external blame

There can often be a temptation to blame external factors, systems and people outside the team’s direct control, for difficulties or poor performance. This can be counterproductive. Any time the retrospective includes references to “they” as in “they didn’t do their bit” or “they don’t get what we need from them”, it’s important to bring the conversation back to the team. We should aim to extend the retrospective prime directive to everyone in our organisations and assume they were doing their best. The question is what can the team do to effect the organisation around them. 

Strong teams should never be isolationist, they should seek to positively influence those around them. Open and transparent two-way communication can do a great deal of work to reduce the frustration with external factors. Famously, in his book “Turn the ship around” David Marquet introduced the mantra “There is no they on Santa Fe”. His submarine was called Santa Fe.

Agree actions

Inspection and adaption are the core tenants of any empirical system. If the rest of the retrospective is about inspecting the way the team is working, then the actions are the adaptations that the team will take to improve in the future. These should be captured and circulated. While the rest of the retrospective should be a private event, the actions should be communicated and committed to. We would often put retrospective actions onto the team’s backlog.

Example actions could include

  • Buy 2 extra licenses for the planning tools so that everyone that needs to, can see the board
  • Mike and Francis are going to pair up on the dashboard feature so they can both pass on their strength skills to the other.
  • Invite everyone from the marketing team to our next review so they have a better understanding of our progress and can feed into our future direction
  • Everyone agrees to be on time to the morning meeting and if you are not going to be there notify the group so that we all know how your work is progressing
  • Jo is going to run a 1 hour demo of the latest tools she has mastered in the analytics package we use
  • Arrange an out of work social for the team in the next month as we need to celebrate our progress over the last 4 months

About the author

Tom Styles

From over 20 years of crafting digital solutions in both the public and private sectors, Tom has a wealth of experience at delivery and leadership level. Tom’s passion for human-centred innovative use of technology and his ability to communicate with both a technical and business audience help maximise value from technology investments.

Tom blogs about agile, technology, and occasionally DJing or Ultimate Frisbee. 

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